Friday, January 13, 2012

Authorial Context of Fanfiction, and the Perils of Reviewership Therefrom

Opinion time!  Reviewing Tomorrow got me thinking about a few things concerning the way I and others react to what we read, and I'd like to address one facet of that now: the impact of knowing about the author's motivations, personality, or private life, as it relates to one's ability to evaluate what one has read.

Oh, and if you're wondering, the title is mostly because I just found out that "therefrom" is, in fact, proper English, and I've been looking for a chance to use it.  Fun with vocabulary!

My thoughts, after the break.

If you read my review of Jera's Tomorrow, you already know what I thought of it.  What I'd like to talk about is something that wasn't in that story at all, but was in an author's note at the bottom of the DA page where she posted it: "The inspiration for this story goes mainly to my father during his last year."

Now in a perfect world, knowing that wouldn't influence my response to the story in any way.  Over here in real life, however, it suddenly puts a completely different spin on what I've just read.  Instead of "just" being a heartwrenching piece of fiction, I can't help but see it now in a much more personal light.  The author isn't just sharing a story anymore; she's sharing her story, the difference in how I as a reader react to that is significant.

As far as the review I posted is concerned, I don't think that knowing any of that made a big difference.  I'd finished reading the story and had already begun to formulate my opinions on it before I read that note, and in any case I try to be as objective as realistically possible when reviewing for this site.  But in a more general context, and for a more casual definition of "review," it can make all the difference in the world.

Let's take another example: Cerulean Pen's Sore.  I suggest you go read at least the first few paragraphs, but if you don't want to then you can take my word for it that there were some pretty major problems with that story from a writing standpoint.  Here's the comment I posted on it after reading:

Mr. author (or Ms. author, as the case may be), it's nice that you have such a big vocabulary. It's a wonderful asset in ficwriting, and one that I hope will serve you well in your future stories.

What you now need to learn is when NOT to use those lovely big words. Sadly, the answer is "most of the time." You see, saying "cerulean stratosphere" instead of "blue sky" (or just "sky"--we all know what color it is without you reminding us, thank you very much) doesn't serve any useful function. It doesn't help set the scene, because it isn't giving the reader any information that "blue sky" doesn't, and it breaks immersion by calling attention to the words used, rather than the story itself.

Even more problematic, you seem to be unsure what some of these wonderful words mean. When you say that Cloudkicker's sense of triumph was "massacred," or when you say that Rainbow Dash's movements were "lucid," you are using these words to describe actions or states with which they are not typically associated. Used sparingly, this sort of irregular usage can be a powerful rhetorical device. When it occurs frequently, it gives the impression that the author has simply gone to his thesaurus and replaced all the descriptive words in his story with fancy-sounding synonyms, without knowing (or caring enough to look up) the specific definitions of those words.

I'm sorry that I was not able to enjoy your story, as I think there was a very thoughtful vignette buried under a sea of ten-dollar synonyms for various colors. In your future writings, I would suggest you give more thought to word choice, with an eye to clarity and accuracy.

Luckily tone of voice doesn't come through clearly in writing--I was very unsatisfied with the story, and my comment was actually quite a bit more polite than I intended it to be.  Moreover, I only touched on a few of the kinds of problems I encountered, because I didn't want to bother repeating what other commenters had already said.

A few hours later, the author left this comment in response to what I and several others had posted:

Hello. I am the author of "Sore", Cerulean Pen, and I understand what everypony is trying to say.

 mistakes, yes. Depressing, yes. Poor writing, yes. English is my first language, but here is something that might help you understand why it's so...poor.

I'm only 12 years old.

Well, you can imagine what a dick I felt like when I read that.

But should I feel guilty about being so critical of the story?  After all, I didn't know the author was twelve when I commented.  More to the point, should it have made a difference even if I did?  I can tell you right now it certainly would have; I'd never have left a review concluding with "I was not able to enjoy your story" if I'd known it was written by a middle schooler.  I still wouldn't have enjoyed it, but I'd have been much less prone to complain had I been aware.

Is it fair to take things like an author's age into consideration when commenting on their writing?  What about their personal investment in the story?  Linguistic fluency is one thing; if your English skills aren't up to snuff, you can improve them, or get someone to edit your story for you.  But you can't "improve" your age, or your story's emotional impetus.  On the one hand, it's obviously unfair to alter or censor your comments on a fic because of what you know about its author.  On the other, shouldn't some consideration be shown towards the writer when they chose to put their work into context?  Whether it impacts one's enjoyment of the work or not, shouldn't one show some respect (or at least, restraint) in such situations?

I don't know.  I know I wouldn't want people to hesitate to criticize my work for any reason, but I have a pretty thick skin.  Lots of folks don't (including plenty of people who are more than willing to say that they're thick-skinned, until push comes to shove).  What's the appropriate reaction here?

I don't have the answer.  To some extent, I don't think any blanket statement can accurately reflect the considerations in play.  But it's certainly food for thought.


  1. Well I'm not sure I'm the best person to be saying this, but since I'm here why not?

    You've got a certain style to your reviews Chris. A style that, to be quite honest, would leave most authors feeling a bit taken aback. It's good for readers though! Because when it comes to critiquing, you're quite critical. You point out minor flaws or problems that most people would skim over or not even notice, and that's good, because it's honest, and that's the type of thing readers want to know.

    The thing that's important to remember for writers I think, is that you're just sharing your opinion, not attacking their personal character. For example with The Logical Option; you may have thought the ending was, "monumentally stupid", but I didn't. Also I'm sure you don't think ADriftingThought himself is monumentally stupid. That would be a pretty precarious leap in transitive thinking for anybody.

    Point being, you don't add much fluff to your reviews, and yes that can be offensive to your targets, but if they feel bad they can say so, and if you feel bad you can apologize. Then everyone can write Celestia a friendship report about what they've learned and live happily ever after.

    I'm next on the list, and even though it might put my dopamine producers in time out for a while, I'm still excited to see what you have to say about my story. Personally for what you're doing I think knowing more about the authors is actually a bad thing, because like you said, it might prevent you from saying something you would have said otherwise, and I prefer honest opinion over happiness any day.

    So ignore my post! Take off the gloves, put on the horseshoes, and have at it. You do what you need to do, and afterwards we'll still be internet friends. I promise.


  2. Context is king I suppose.

    While details about the author might skew your reviews, I think the best question to be asking is how does it work in reverse? Would a reader of your reviews take your personality or circumstances into account when reading your reviews? Personally, I think what's good for the goose is good for the gander in this sort of case.

    Sure, someone people might read your critiques and think you're being harsh or unfair. If they think that though, do you really believe they have taken a step back to consider what perspective YOU are coming at it from? If they haven't, then they are only doing to you what they perceive you have done to another. If they do, then most likely they'll know that you're offering your opinion, and that likewise they can have an opinion that you're wrong in your assessments.

    Like so many things, you get out what you put in, even as a casual reader. Which, to my mind, leaves only one question that you, as the reviewer, need ask yourself. If someone was to take the time to really study your critique, what is it you actually want them to take away from it? From what I have seen, the answer is clear: Your honest opinion.

    You can't bear the burden of other people's personal crazy. If they make assumptions about your work, that's their problem. Naturally, as a writer you will take great account of how you expect your words to come across to the audience, but how much is that worth? Chicken Vortex's reference to 'The Logical Option' is a good one, so let's examine that.

    You said: "But the end of this story was monumentally stupid"

    If I were to critique that in itself, I'd say it's a subjective interpretation presented as a fact, a.k.a. a lie. The accurate description would be closer to:

    "I thought the end of this story was monumentally stupid."

    There are two ways of looking that this distinction, as I see it. One is that in reality, that is the society we ACTUALLY live in, people don't generally talk like that. If someone can't handle someone else expressing an opinion in your original form, their problems are going to be a lot greater than a fanfic review. On the other hand, I personally think the world would be a much nicer place all-round if people DID communicate this way. Let's think about how big of a linguistic shift that would be though. If you started writing 'I think' or 'in my opinion' before EVERY subjective concept, language would bog down pretty quickly.

    So I think the only thing any of us can really do is be aware of when we are expressing facts (or at least overtly common opinions), and when we are sharing opinions. If an opinion runs the risk of causing offence, you have the choice to remind the reader that it's just an opinion. How often you do so is a matter of literary and communicative skill.

    As long as you would be happy with someone reviewing your work in the same way you review other people's...then don't change a thing.

    Sometimes, giving someone a shock is the most precious gift you can give them, but you can't MAKE them learn from it...and that's my bottom line.

    Scottage - out.

  3. I love it when people post lengthy, thought-out responses to my posts. It gives me something to think about!

    As both of you point out, my reviews are much more critical than is common in most corners of the fanfiction world. I don't have any problem with being perceived as hyper-critical per se, but at the same time I want to be fair. "Being fair," unfortunately, is a nebulous concept at best, and I struggle with it at times. I appreciate both of your thoughts on the matter.

  4. Frankly, I've always been of the opinion that if you don't tell someone the flaws in their writing, you're doing them a disservice as a reader, and that isn't going to change based on their personal situation save for some very extreme circumstances. Their age generally shouldn't come into it--is bad grammar magically less bad when a boy of 12 writes it? No. The mistakes are the same. And if you don't bring to the author's attention the problem with his/her writing, then he/she is more likely to continue making the same mistake in future endeavors, until the point that someone else points out, perhaps not as politely as you might have, the same problem. Not to say that the author wouldn't improve on his/her own or anything (my own writing ability has been largely self-taught through reading and practice, for example), but critical response is a powerful tool for the author's improvement nonetheless. The earlier it's brought up, the greater opportunity the author has to correct the problem before it lessens his/her next work.

    Your instinct to be concerned over the personal feelings of the author when they're more vulnerable and their mistakes are more forgivable for state of mind, inexperience, etc, is good, but all you really have to do to be okay in that regard, I think, is just not to be a dick about it. Point out the problems, explain why they're problems, when possible offer potential solutions or ways to avoid the problems, and don't be insulting about it. And as a general rule, you definitely do that. I think the kids can manage to stomach that. After all, they SHOULD be getting similar guidance from their teachers anyway. It's not as though children feeling their way through writing and a learning process for it are likely to be unfamiliar with the concept of evaluation and critique; that's what the school curriculum, which is (most likely) where they learned to read and write, and do the majority of their writing for, already does.

  5. I wrote some godawful fanfiction myself when I was that age (and even younger), where the character's eye colour would change anywhere from two to eight times per chapter, and I used the thesaurus more often than I used spellcheck.

    Still, it was incredibly rewarding (if perhaps a little humbling) to get feedback with the honest intent of helping me improve. I remember the first candid review I got. I remember how I was a little sad at first, that the person who commented on my story didn't seem to like it, but then after looking at what they said a little harder (after typing up and deleting a miffed-sounding response to them, no less!), I realised that - even if they didn't enjoy my story as much as the other reviewers - they were legitimately trying to help me get better at writing.

    What this person said had been good advice. They showed me where I went wrong, and what I could do to fix it. And whaddya know. I learned something too.

    Never shy away from giving people criticism, regardless of age. You should never be rude, but don't feel obligated to candy-coat things either. It's always a hard lesson to learn that the these things that you work so hard to create aren't always perfect or magical or even all that great, but it's one that doesn't need to be held off to a certain age. After all, this is the internet, and if you don't learn to grow a thick skin and roll with the punches, you're probably going to end up stepping away from the computer and never coming back.

  6. I have always believed in the philosophy that TV tropes calls "Kill the Author." The basic idea is that authorial intent is irrelevant. So when the William Golding says "there is no subtext in 'Lord of the Flies'" it means no more than when a literature professor says there is. Artistic works exist on their own and in their own context; what an author intends to convey means little in the light of what they have said. The best example of this that I have encountered is, coincidentally, "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" in that Lauren Faust who created the world, populated it, and set forth the basic rules now comments on her own interpretation of the universe but admits that these decisions aren't hers to make. Admittedly, this is because others have taken the task of running the show but if we were to imagine that there was never a season two would her ideas suddenly have more meaning?

    Therefore when Jera writes the pain of her father's illness and death it adds truth to the work but the knowledge of the source of this truth gives us no insight. Likewise, in cases like Cerulean Pen, heed your own wisdom: you still wouldn't have enjoyed it. Knowledge of how this story was created did not re-contextualize the story nor did it make it better; instead learn that you do not always know who you are talking to or about online and that being kind is rarely a mistake. Or, to be pithy: when critiquing an author's work be honest about how it made you feel, be kind in what you say, be generous about what they got right, be loyal enough to help if they ask, and have a laugh when appropriate then you will find the magic of writing.

  7. Um, hey Chris. It's actually Cerulean Pen, author of "Sore". And when I first read your comment...I'm not going to sugarcoat it: it stung a little. Well, let's face facts: I'm a twelve-year-old who had been smothered by compliments from schoolmates for the past year. But, I have definitely learned to heed criticism. Hell, my father is a movie critic, and I've written for his website before. So, I definitely understand what you were trying to convey and I respect your opinion. You weren't able to enjoy my story. I understand that. I'm not going to whine about it. I've taught myself to write (and draw) and I'm still learning how to do things the right way. I was trying to recover with a run-in with purple prose, which is why I sort of layered the story with those ten-dollar synonyms.

    But I'm sort of honored to have my story in your ramblings. Again, I really appreciate the honesty. The readers down at Equestria Daily shared their opinions: I listened. And don't feel like a dick because I'm only twelve. It doesn't change anything, like you said.

    Cerulean Pen

    1. I'm glad that you've taken the criticism I and others gave you positively--I honestly don't think I'd have been as mature about the matter at your age (twelve-year-old me was kind of a brat, actually). It speaks well of you that you've responded in this way, and if more authors did, I think the fanfiction community at large would be a better place.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, and I wish you the best with your future creative writing, whatever form it may take.